ST. LOUIS — The Gateway Arch, that soaring stainless-steel rainbow hard by the Mississippi River, stands as a 630-foot monument to an idea that was controversial even in 19th-century America: that this Midwestern city would serve as a starting point to a new life out West, where people could escape the problems of their past.
If all goes according to Burger King’s master plan, St. Louis could again serve as a gateway to a new life, this one with less beef in the American diet, which in turn could help reduce the many environmental impacts that raising cattle has on our vulnerable planet. The fast-food chain is testing its Impossible Whopper in the greater metro area here, and if the meatless hamburger proves a success in St. Louis, Burger King will roll out the sandwich to all of its 7,200 locations nationwide.
Such an expansion would make mock-meat hamburgers available in almost every corner of the country, far more available than they are now at smaller chains such as Red Robin, White Castle and Carl’s Jr. Burger King could give millions of Americans who crave a hamburger the option of purchasing one that, unlike the crumbly vegetarian patties of the past, reportedly looks and tastes much more like beef.
So is the Impossible Whopper any good? Answering this question was my mission in St. Louis, a city (perhaps) selected as a test market precisely because it’s not located on the East or West coasts, where a large segment of the population is already attuned to the environmental and animal welfare issues animating meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger. That was Adam Kreger’s theory, at least. He’s a student at the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, where he’s studying animal rights. He was, like me, waiting on an Impossible Whopper.
I was there, of course, to sample the burger and decide whether Burger King has a hit on its hands, one worth replicating in stores across the land. It’s admittedly an odd, illogical task: judging whether a company should do its part to save Earth based on how good a product tastes. It’s sort of like deciding whether you should recycle plastic based on your opinion of a bottle’s design. That thing is uuug-ly. Toss it on the streets!
The choice should be obvious, right? You pick the option that does the most good.
But business doesn’t operate that way. No company will invest in a product that consumers don’t want, even one with such a potential upside for the environment. The early word from St. Louis, however, is encouraging for both Burger King and, at least in this particular instance, the future of planet Earth. Consumer demand is high for the Impossible Whopper, according to several employees I spoke with over the counter. Some locations have sold out of their supply and have had to reorder cases of the patties produced by Impossible Foods.
At a Burger King in the Academy neighborhood, the store has already sold out of its supply, twice, in the week or so since the Impossible Whopper was introduced, said assistant manager Nikiesha Harvey. People have been calling and coming in from all parts of the country to order one, or a dozen, some as far away as California and Florida, she said.
“I couldn’t tell the difference, and I was shocked myself,” Harvey said about the Impossible Whopper (which runs $5.59 in the St. Louis market, a full dollar more than the standard Whopper). She even served one to her husband and son, who couldn’t taste the difference, either.
Part of this trickeration can be attributed to Impossible Foods, the San Francisco Bay-area start-up that this year rolled out a new formula for its plant-based patties. The company has substituted soy protein for wheat protein to give the patty a more beeflike texture. It has also added methyl cellulose, a plant-based binder, to make the burger juicier. And this is in addition to the not-so-secret ingredient, heme, which Impossible Foods produces by injecting the DNA of a soy plant into genetically engineered yeast, which is then fermented.
All this science is concealed in a patty that doesn’t look too far removed from the ground-beef version, especially after both are run under Burger King’s signature charbroiler. Both beef and plant-based patties are branded with black parallel stripes, the grill marks that are as much a part of Burger King’s identity as that royal mascot with the perpetually creepy smile. I should note the chain also offers a vegan, mayo-less Impossible Whopper, whose patty is cooked in a microwave to ensure no meat particles from the charbroiler contaminate it. It’s an ashen-looking patty, unappetizing on its face, though tasty enough within its Whopper confines.
It may take a genius to create an Impossible burger, but it doesn’t take one to understand why the mock meat fools so many: The bar is set extremely low. As I’ve noted before, the beef in fast-food burgers represents only a fraction of the sandwich’s total weight, about 30 percent for the Whopper. Most of what you taste in a Whopper is not ground beef. It’s a combination of sweet bun, fatty mayo, ripe tomato, raw onions and that famous “grill flavor,” which a Burger King representative told me last year was natural to the flame-grilling process, not artificially added.
Few Whopper devotees probably do this, but the next time you try one, break off a hunk of the ground beef and taste it. The meat is so overcooked and juiceless that, if not for the grill flavor, the patty wouldn’t have much to recommend it. Whatever beef flavor remains is residual, an echo of the animal fat that’s all but rendered out. It’s a grill-flavored protein disc, which the Impossible version has no problem mimicking. In fact, I’d argue the Impossible Whopper patty, all by itself, has more flavor than the meaty one.
I was reminded of this during a side trip to White Castle, where the chain sells an Impossible Slider. At a location in the St. Louis suburbs, I placed an order of four original sliders and four of the Impossible knockoffs, each slipped into a tiny branded cardboard sleeve, generating the kind of waste usually reserved for family picnics. I ordered the sliders with griddled onions and pickles only, no cheese, to better taste the patties.
The White Castle crew told me three times that it would take an extra 10 minutes to prepare the Impossible Sliders — “maybe longer,” noted the cashier — because they were understaffed. I said that wasn’t a problem, but when the mini-burgers were ready, the Impossible Sliders were almost naked underneath their pillowy buns. A few lonely caramelized onions clung to the bottom of the patties. Without the sweet pungency of those browned onions — and, obviously, without Burger King’s grill flavor — the Impossible patties were the main attraction, a mixed blessing. The mock meat is thicker than the original White Castle patty, this thin, sickly slab that looks as if it was sliced off a processed loaf. The Impossible patty is also an umami bomb, like soy sauce in solid form.
The Impossible Slider is a stark reminder that, no matter how savory the plant-based patty may be, it’s still not beef.
After eating more than a dozen Impossible-branded burgers in St. Louis — including Red Robin’s thick-cut version, which had none of the chin-dribbling juices you desire from a big, sloppy grilled hamburger — I’ve come to the conclusion that the producer of this meat alternative is a master illusionist. After one bite, you swear the Impossible patty tastes just like beef. After a second bite, you begin to sense the illusion behind the science. After a third, you’re ready to invest in the whole enterprise. With time, the illusion becomes its own alternative reality: The product is close enough to beef that your brain is willing to fill in the rest of the flavors, even if somewhere in the dark recesses of your cerebral cortex, you know it’s all a lie.
America, get ready for the Impossible Whopper. I suspect it will be coming your way soon, once it passes through St. Louis.
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